PRINT May 1989


And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

—Edgar Allan Poe,
“The Masque of the Red Death”

”LET’S NOT CHAT ABOUT DESPAIR,” sings Diamanda Galas on a track from You Must Be Certain of the Devil, 1988, the third record of her “Masque of the Red Death” trilogy. The verb “chat” is chosen purposefully: Galas wants to bully the complacent into action, advocating the option of empowerment to people with AIDS (PWAS) as a viable alternative to awaiting “miracles in small hotels / with Seconal and Compazine / or for a ticket to the house of death in Amsterdam.” A formally trained singer with vocal cords of titanium (she calls herself “the Mike Tyson of the voice”), Galas has produced a very personal AIDS-related art of intense immediacy. “There’s no time left for talk,” she says, nor for prayer either, although reappropriated Psalms and Lamentations pepper her repertoire. Her voice drips venom in the cadences of an uncompromising Southern Goth.

Galas shuns meek and pacific statements directed at audiences already sympathetic to the plight of PWAs. Nor is her work simply a memorial to the dead; positively identifying with the sick themselves, her “blood brothers,” she makes the despair that threatens them her own, working through a chilling and graphic mourning process. Much art has and will attempt to express the immense suffering and bereavement that AIDS has caused. Galas’ mood, however, is one of anger as much as of loss—she demonstrates how an activist artist can push the limits of acceptable social responses, challenging the status quo. Furthermore, confronting the historically determined residue of 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian ethics, Galas sorts through the preexisting structures of feeling and thought that the culture has provided as tools, sometimes inappropriate or actually destructive ones, with which to face the disease.

This project of Galas’ entails wide intervallic leaps in history. For her, the past (as appropriated through Biblical passages and works by Romantic poets) functions as an emotionally charged political instrument; there is nothing funny, ironic, or coy about her use of it. Well aware of the psychosocial ramifications of the material she chooses, she never borrows impudently or maliciously. Of Greek descent, she employs her heritage to stabilize her avant-garde assault, and to lend it a historical depth. The pure, raw sounds and performative gestures that constitute her art draw upon her Maniot lineage, mourners past and present coming together in a triple-black package.

Edmund White writes, “If art is to confront AIDS more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humor, and end in anger.”1 He could be describing “Masque of the Red Death.” Moreover, as a performer straddling the cusp of art and popular music, Galas reaches a relatively broad audience, some of it at least initially attracted, perhaps, by her gothic image (in the boring Europop sense of the design) and her glamorous associates (the profits earned by synthpop stars Depeche Mode finance her label) more than by her music itself. As a quasi-popular entertainer with a striking visual appeal, Galas has garnered press coverage of her AIDS-related work in periodicals that might not otherwise cover the issue. Indeed, the rock-music industry is rife with homophobia and sexism, attitudes that she makes it her business to confront, in public and in private. Finally her concert program notes are full of information about AIDS.

Galas was raised “somewhere between Tijuana and Sparta,”2 as she likes to say, meaning San Diego. A keyboard prodigy, she played Beethoven with the San Diego Symphony prior to concentrating on jazz, which she performed first with her father’s local bands and later with David Murray, Bobby Bradford, Butch Morris, Mark Dresser, and many others. In the late ’70s she began recording and touring as a singer, performing solo as well as providing “stunt” vocals for composers Vinko Globokar and Iannis Xenakis. Her earliest recording was a piece of audio-verité psychodrama with Jim French and Henry Kaiser called “Looks Could Kill,” on French / Kaiser / Galas (Metalanguage Records, 1979). The title composition of her first solo LP, Litanies of Satan (Y Records, 1982), was based on Baudelaire’s “Les Litanies de Satan,” 1857, while the record’s other side-long piece, “Wild Women with Steak Knives,” is aptly described by its title. Galas’ eponymous next album (Metalanguage Records, 1984) included “Tragouthia apo to Aima Exoun Fono” (Song from the blood of those murdered), a threnody for the thousands killed in the aftermath of the 1967 Greek military coup. Today she is in the singular position of being an avant-garde vocalist recording for a rock label, called, ironically enough, Mute.

Galas’ music is a startling barrage of advanced vocal techniques intensified by electronic dynamics; she begins where other modern vocalists leave off. Cathy Berberian, Joan LaBarbara, Meredith Monk, the Experimental Vocal Techniques Ensemble, and others have all developed sophisticated vocabularies of tonal and atonal sound, but these tend to be quirky, restrained, relatively quiet methods that depend on amplification to project their various whispers, clicks, and growls beyond the front row. Galas, on the other hand, takes advantage of dynamics inspired by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen (in such pieces as Gesang der Jünglinge, 1955–56, and Momente, 1962) and by rock music. Her vocal gymnastics evoke the rock-oriented divas Lene Lovich and Nina Hagen (and even Yma Sumac) more than her experimental predecessors. Employing a dark timbral palette ranging from the angelic to the demonic, she takes operatic techniques well past their usual limits into an electronic Babel of lost voices, wailings, cackles, screams, and imprecations. In concert, Galas works several microphones simultaneously, spatially deploying her panoply of voices in a Sybil-like frenzy.

In 1986 Galas released the first disk of her “Masque of the Red Death” trilogy, The Divine Punishment. The record’s genesis lay in the deathbed suggestion of a friend with AIDS, journalist Tom Hopkins, who was losing his voice to the syndrome—his idea was transmitted through an amplifier connected to his single remaining vocal cord. Galas thus made Hopkins’ voice her own, mediating it through her own vital instrument. This might seem presumptuous, even obscene: by what right does one person speak for another, much less an entire group? No simple answer to the question can exist. Yet the death of somebody one is close to can make one’s identification urgent and immediate. Galas offers her voice as an expression of anger, succor, and simple fellow feeling. Giving public expression to a rage and loss that might otherwise be confined in loneliness, she provides a cathartic focus or condensation of emotions connected with AIDS. And since many of the texts she uses are so culturally embedded as to be common property in the modern West, she is in a sense mapping out a shared ground.

With The Divine Punishment Galas may have nailed down the last useful employment of the idea of the plague in relation to AIDS. In AIDS and its Metaphors, 1989, Susan Sontag analyzes the “moralistic inflation”3 involved in terming the syndrome a plague, burdening it with a hysterical spin and bringing into play, whether subliminally or explicitly, connotations of guilt and somehow-merited punishment. Old Testament notions of what is clean and unclean, good and bad, acceptable and otherwise, underlie the Judeo-Christian morality to which we are still beholden on the most everyday levels; in the interests of providing the most effective care possible, Sontag advocates suspending interpretations of AIDS determined by such dualities. Galas, however, riskily engages a cultural perspective broad enough to take apart the ethical polar oppositions of the plague metaphor. She performs a genealogy of the idea, plunging into its metaphysical depths to unpack the loaded judgments condensed therein.

The two compositions constituting The Divine Punishment chart what Galas describes as a “geography of the plague.” In “Deliver Me from Mine Enemies” she renders “the law of the plague” from Leviticus 15 as a slow, dire chant over a baleful static drumbeat. Leviticus is the book of God’s laws as imparted to Moses; many of its prescripts are arcane, but some have a disturbing contemporary relevance: “And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, he is unclean . . . . and the woman with whom this man shall lie shall be unclean. And whosoever toucheth her will be unclean.” The vocabulary, of course, has an archaic ring, but its tone reverberates distinctly in some of the responses we’ve seen to AIDS. In “Deliver Me from Mine Enemies” Galas also cites Psalms 59 (the source of the piece’s title) and 22 (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), in voices ranging from fractured whispers to unearthly screams. And in the record’s second piece, “Free Among the Dead”—increasingly more angry, in a crescendo of defiance and accusation—she quotes Psalm 88, “I have stretched out my hands unto thee, wilt thou shew wonders to the Dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee?” Moving into Italian, Galas finally closes the passage with a conflation of the sufferer, Artaud, and Johnny Rotten: “Sono le feci del Signore. / Sono il segno. / Sono la pestilenza. / Sono l’Anticristo.” (I am the shit of God. / I am the sign. / I am the plague. / I am the Antichrist.)

By quoting the Bible, by making it her own and forcing it to serve her political and artistic needs, Galas audaciously appropriates the most connotatively charged text of Western culture. You can almost sense the verses she chooses stumbling beneath the weight of their historical and symbolic freight. (A lesser voice than Galas’ might be overwhelmed by them.) Yet the verses stumble in other ways as well, moving in and out of the listener’s sympathies. At times we hear the punitive God of the Old Testament, the strict father; at times the suffering Son, or suffering humanity. And the words seem at times an eloquent expression of realities we know, at times alien concepts wrestling to contain a contemporary culture that they were not designed to describe—and yet we still see them applied today, to suffocating effect. Galas’ argument here might be encapsulated in the title of the last record of the trilogy, You Must Be Certain of the Devil: know your enemy, and your enemy’s knowledge of you.

Philip-Dimitri Galas, Diamanda’s writer brother, heard The Divine Punishment while dying of AIDS (she was unaware of his condition when she began the “Masque” trilogy), and two compositions on the succeeding album, Saint of the Pit, are dedicated to his memory. This is the densest and most wrenching segment of the work; the music itself is less funereal than on the previous record, but the voice has become more hysterical. With Saint of the Pit, Galas delves deeply into the mourning traditions of her Greek ancestry, the ritual laments sung by the Maniot women of Greece’s southern tip. These songs are a living folk tradition expressing a “collective tribute to the dead from the whole community.”4 (As Elpenor beseeches Odysseus in Homer, “I ask that you remember me, and do not go and leave me behind unwept, unburied, when you leave, for fear I might become the gods’ curse on you.”5) Antiphonal chants, a call-and-response kind of keening tossed back and forth among the dead’s kinswomen and professional mourners brought in to join them, the laments are theatrically and cathartically exasperated by breast beating, hair tearing, and cheek gouging. As Galas knows, they are a form of empowerment for the women—an enactment, an assumption, of the power of death.

The Maniot mourning practice, observed “from earliest times,”6 has always more or less presented a threat to the community’s patriarchal order. Figuratively controlling death, the women implicitly question the men’s literal control of inheritance and property. Furthermore, not only is their abandonment of their usual restraint a female disruption of the communal peace, but it is bound up with thoughts of revenge: “The dirge,” Margaret Alexiou writes, “is always strongest where the law of vendetta flourishes, as in Sicily or Mani today.”7 (One traditional moirologi, as these laments are known, incites a murdered man’s wife to vengeance with the insistent question “Do you remember?”8) Today these ancient ritual laments have long been integrated into the Greek Orthodox Church; Cretan paintings of the early 17th century depict Christ being taken off the cross while women in black mourn him. But they still chafe against the strongly patrician Greek Orthodox franchise. Traditional Maniot women actually spend much of their lives in silence, and mourning provides a rare emotional conduit. Thus they sing the moirologia with, as Galas puts it, “the violence of somebody who’s been in a hole for a really long time.” Here the iconographies and symbologies of Galas’ radical feminism and her embrace of the rights of PWAs intersect. Her black hair and clothing recuperate the black-clad Maniot sorority, and update it with leather and weaponry—the cover photograph of You Must Be Certain of the Devil, for example, depicts her posed as a severely coiffed Greek mourner with her finger on the trigger of a pistol. Her image is brilliantly ambiguous, an ever-shifting decentered display of potent theatrical poses.

Saint of the Pit’s instrumental first section juxtaposes the warmth of a Hammond organ with the high-tech overtones of a synthesizer, evoking Poe by way of Roger Corman. This is followed by a lone voice calling wordlessly against the void, crying out against death above a background of mechanical sounds, chains, and a bleak wind. When Galas begins to recite Baudelaire’s “L’Héautontimorouménos” (The self-tormentor, 1857), however, a gaggle of overdubbed voices forms a symbolist moirologi, a call and response between childish, monstrous whisperers and the poet’s open death song: “Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde! / C’est tout mon sang, ce poison noir!” (That shrillness is in my voice! That black poison is my blood!) Commingling self and other, torturer and victim, subject and object, Baudelaire’s poem is all too relevant to a situation that finds PWAS struggling not only for their health but also to assert their cultural identities and to refute the suggestion that they are somehow the causes of their own illness as well as its prey.

Galas is still expressing solidarity with the dying on Saint of the Pit, singing “Aimez qui vous aima du berceau dans la bière” (Love who loved you from the cradle to the grave), from Nerval’s “Artémis,” 1854. The line could serve as the trilogy’s ethical epigraph, had Galas not supplied one herself on the cover of You Must Be Certain of the Devil:


Galas’ bitterest metaphoric identification with the dead “denied by mercy” lies in her setting of Corbière’s “Cris d’aveugle” (Blind man’s cries, 1873), which concludes Saint of the Pit. Here the singer summons her densest array of vocal effects, ranging from a morbid ostinato to an extremely high-pitched keening within which one hears screeching birds and wailing sirens gradually take aural form. The poem recounts a dying man’s harrowing, lonely, and excruciatingly slow expiration, a death both Christ-like and as endless as Prometheus’. To be involved in the struggle against AIDS is to fear that one is participating in just such an endless death. The logical response is that of political engagement, which Galas, on You Must Be Certain of the Devil, approaches from the oblique angle of Afro-American spirituals and gospel music. Exploiting the parallels between Greek ritual lamentation and the connection of black women to the church in the American South, she transforms gospel clichés (“Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Let My People Go”) into calls to arms. Here for the first time she uses primarily her own words to condemn those who have rhetorically treated AIDS as a punitive plague, threatening with eye-for-an-eye vengeance “the pentacostal killers and the black eyes / or the roman catholic killers and the blue eyes / of the pinhead skinhead killers.”

A Gran Fury poster issued last December by the Kitchen in New York stated the case clearly: “WITH 42,000 DEAD / ART / IS NOT ENOUGH / TAKE / COLLECTIVE / DIRECT / ACTION / TO END / THE AIDS / CRISIS.” By identifying with the collective plight of PWAS, by advocating that her audience do the same, by proposing anger as a response to our society’s complex reluctance with medical and moral support for those with the disease, Galas makes her art into politics. She well knows that her efforts cannot be enough. I imagine the singer thinking of her Maniot kinswomen mourning at the graves of slain Greek Resistance fighters during World War II—singing not of forgetting the dead, but of avenging them.

When there are so many we shall have to mourn when grief has been made so public, and exposed to the critique of a whole epoch the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die among us, those who were doing us some good, who knew it was never enough but hoped to improve a little by living.
—W. H. Auden

Richard Gehr’s writing about the arts appears frequently in The Village Voice, American Film, and other publications.



1. Edmund White, “Esthetics and Loss,” Artforum XXV no. 5, January 1987, p. 71. For further discussions of art in the context of AIDS see Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October no. 43, Winter 1987, and other articles in the same special issue (reprinted as a book, under the same title, in Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1988); Kim Levin, “It’s Called Denial: Another Look at Group Material’s AIDS Show,” The Village Voice, 17 January 1989, p. 87; and Maurice Berger, “Of Cold Wars and Curators,” Artforum XXVII no. 6, February 1989, pp. 86-92.

2. This and subsequent unannotated statements derive from a conversation I had with the artist during January 1989.

3. Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989, p. 60.

4. Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, London: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 44.

5. The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, XI: 71-73.

6. Alexiou, p. 21.

7. Ibid., p. 22.

8. Ibid., p. 171.